By Brittany Smith
Muscle Man’s plastic hands are curled into fists. His chest muscles bulge. He wears yellow briefs over an orange bodysuit and his chiseled face is set in a confident smile.
Every day Carl tries to break Muscle Man.
He coils a length of twine around Muscle Man’s ankles and strings him up by the feet. He buries him in the backyard. Once, he even coated the toy with honey and watched ants cover his body in a writhing mass.
“Surrender, you coward,” Carl whispers. But Muscle Man never does.
“Alright, then. You give me no choice.”
Carl holds a lighter to Muscle Man’s cheek. Instantly, the plastic sizzles and his features began to run. His face dries half-smeared, like he’s suffered a stroke. The smile looks more like a sneer. But Muscle Man is still strong.
Today, Muscle Man is submerged in a jar of water with the lid screwed tight. Carl rolls the jar from one end of the kitchen to the other. It hits the opposite wall and then he goes and retrieves it. Each time he rolls harder, daring the glass to break.
Carl hears Mom’s slippers slapping against the linoleum. She enters the kitchen with Kio, her ferret twisting around her feet. The ferret has oily fur and a twitching pink nose. Carl is afraid of it, but nobody knows.
“Baby, a migraine’s coming on,” she says, “be a doll and get dinner going. And come shut these living room blinds.”
Mom stretches out on the couch and Kio slinks along her body and under her sweatshirt. The ferret rests sandwiched between her breasts as she watches television.
Back in the kitchen, Carl inspects the cupboards and fridge and decides on Popples. It’s the name Stefan gave their creation. Carl gets a baking sheet and lays out six slices of bread. He puts a processed cheese square onto each piece. Then he sprinkles bacon bits on top. Finally, he turns on the oven and slides the tray under the broiler to toast.
Carl sits in front of the oven door to watch what happens. The oven is warm and the coils glow bright orange. In one hand he holds Muscle Man, pressed against the glass. Carl wonders what would happen to him under the broiler. Muscle Man was a gift from Stefan. Memories of his brother are twisted up with the smell of shoe polish and sweat. Stefan was serious about fitness.
“Whatever you do, little man,” he told Carl, “you gotta be serious. That’s how you get better than the shit that keeps you down.”
Every day, Stefan would perform two hundred pushups in his room, counting them out in strained grunts. His damp undershirt clung to his back. The hair beneath his armpits looked like an animal’s pelt. After his pushups, Stefan got out the shoeshine kit and worked on his army boots.
Carl watched his brother’s routine silently, because if he said anything, he’d be kicked out of the room. Only when the boots were gleaming, was Carl allowed to speak.
“What do you think?” Stefan said one afternoon, putting them on. “Perfect, right?” He stood up. “Get down there and have a look.”
Carl kneeled beside the boots.
“Can you see your reflection?”
“Uh, no. A bit, maybe.” Stefan laughed. “I’ve got something for you, little man,”
Out of the closet came a box, and there was Muscle Man encased in plastic.
“It was supposed to be for your birthday, but what the hell?”
Carl couldn’t help hugging Stefan. He came away from the hug sticky with his brother’s sweat.
Under the broiler, the cheese slices begin to melt. They glisten and their edges soften. Then bubbles form and begin to rise. The bubbles grow brown and then black. It
happens so quickly.
Later, Carl will try to connect things, bridging gaps and making a story where before there were only hints. The first real change Carl noticed was Stefan’s boots. He stopped shining them every day and they became dull and scuffed. The pushups ceased, and Stefan lost weight. He got zits on his arms and back. Then he stopped coming home after work and was gone for days, sometimes weeks at a time.
During Stefan’s absences, Mom’s headaches got worse. She camped out on the couch with the television on. Carl listened for the sound of the boots on the stairs.
Then the boots came. But they belonged to someone else now.
Stefan’s eyes were scary. His pupils were dilated and his eyes were dark and glassy. Stefan sat beside Mom on the couch, and Carl and Muscle Man were on the floor. Stefan’s leg jumped up and down. He rested a hand on top of his knee but it still vibrated. His boot tapped the floor. There were beads of sweat on his face.
“Please, Mom,” Stefan said in a desperate voice Carl had never heard before.
“No,” Mom said, “not another goddamn cent.”
And for a moment, everything seemed frozen. Even that leg stopped shuddering and the hand that rested on top of it was stiff and inanimate, like a glove.
Carl felt warmth blossom in the crotch of his pants. With horror, he realized what he’d done. And then he couldn’t move even though he wanted to run away. He had to stay hunched on the floor, watching. He saw his brother’s leg resume vibrating. Then Kio appeared and Stefan kicked the ferret hard. It squealed and darted under the couch.
“Get the fuck out of my house, you loser,” Mom said, “you’re not my son.”
Just before Stefan walked out for good, he turned to Carl.
“It’s you now, little man,” he said.
What is a man? Is a man invincible? Does a man bleed?
Carl puts a shoelace around Muscle Man’s neck and pulls as hard as he can, but he can’t see what happens next, because he is crying. After the Popples are pulled from the oven, you can pick off the burned bits like scabs, and steam rises from them.
Carl took a knife out of the drawer and at first he thought it was just for slicing the Popples in half. But then he had a better idea. He knew that he was going to do it because he could be serious too.
Carl stuck the point of the blade into his forearm. For a fascinating moment, nothing happened. Then a little crimson bead of blood welled into the cut. The bead trembled and broke, spilling down his arm.
Ribbons of blood came next. Fat red drips rained onto the kitchen floor. And right before Carl lost consciousness, he looked down and saw Muscle Man’s mangled face staring up at him.
Brittany is a freelance writer, blogger, and tire swing enthusiast who currently resides in Toronto. Britt is especially fond of three-toed sloths, flea markets, and office supplies. She hates winter sports.